I can’t get no sleep? There is nothing worse than not being able to fall asleep, no matter how tired you are, or having trouble to get back to sleep when you wake up at night.
Chronic insomnia is not just annoying; it can also be very detrimental to your health. Luckily there is much you can do to return to a good night’s rest, without the help of sleeping pills.
In his latest book Good Medicine – Safe, natural ways to solve over 75 common health problems, UK nutritionist Patrick Holford shares some natural solutions to insomnia.
The sleep hormone melatonin’s main role in the brain is to regulate the sleep–wake cycle. Without melatonin it’s difficult to get to sleep and stay asleep. It’s an almost identical molecule to serotonin, from which it is made.
One way to increase melatonin is to provide more of the building blocks used to make serotonin: 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), which is made from various nutrients, including folic acid, vitamins B3 (niacin), B6, C and zinc, plus tryptophan.
There is a biochemical chain that stretches from foods that are particularly high in tryptophan (chicken and turkey, seafood, tofu, eggs, nuts, seeds and milk) to melatonin.
You could also supplement melatonin directly. Taking between 3mg and 6mg is proven to help you get to sleep.
In Britain, melatonin is classified as a medicine and is available only on prescription. Another option is to take 5-HTP or tryptophan.
They’ve been consistently proven to be effective in promoting sleep. Ideally, both need to be taken one hour before you go to bed and with a small amount of carbohydrate (such as an oatcake), because this causes a release of insulin which carries tryptophan into the brain.
The highest natural source of melatonin is a supplement called asphalia, which comes from a grass called Festuca arundinacea, also available as a supplement. Other good sources include oats and sour cherries. A concentrate of the Montmorency cherry has been shown to aid sleep.
Stay away from stimulants
Avoid well-known stimulants such as caffeine, but also be aware that sugar can raise the activity of the two adrenal hormones: adrenalin and cortisol. When your blood sugar dips too low, the adrenal hormones start rising. Raised cortisol levels at night will stop you sleeping.
A sensible starting place for a good night’s sleep is to eat a low-GL diet. The diet focuses on (a) cutting back on sugar; (b) choosing low-GL foods (the foods that keep blood sugar levels even, such as wholegrain pasta or brown rice, instead of white); and (c) eating protein with carbohydrates to further slow the release of sugars in those carbohydrates.
Caffeine keeps you awake because not only is it a stimulant but it also depresses melatonin for up to ten hours. Coffee drinkers take twice as long to drop off to sleep than those who don’t drink coffee and they sleep on average one to two hours fewer than those given decaf coffee, so it is wise to avoid caffeinated drinks in the afternoon.
Although tea contains caffeine, it also contains L-theanine. This amino acid seems to encourage a relaxed state, inducing calming alpha waves in the brain. You can supplement L-theanine, thus avoiding the caffeine in tea, and some sleep formulas contain it.
The main neurotransmitter that switches off adrenalin is called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). When your levels of GABA are low, you will feel anxious and have trouble sleeping.
Interestingly, almost all sleeping pills work to promote a GABAlike effect. In many parts of the world you can buy GABA over the counter or on the internet, but in the UK it’s only available on prescription. That’s a shame because GABA is a natural antidote to anxiety.
Although alcohol is classified as a relaxant precisely because it promotes GABA, it actually also promotes anxiety. The net consequence of regular alcohol consumption is GABA depletion, which leads to more adrenalin and that causes less good-quality sleep. To bring your brain chemistry back into balance, it’s better to avoid alcohol.
Consider behavioural techniques
Therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help insomnia by encouraging patients to acknowledge the stress that is preventing them from sleeping and helping them to develop ways of dealing with it.
One method is to identify negative or unhelpful thoughts, such as ‘I just can’t sleep without my pills’ and changing them.
Research shows that various forms of counselling and psychological help are not only the most effective but also the safest way to tackle insomnia. Ask your doctor about getting psychological help.
‘Sleep hygiene’ forms part of most sleep regimes. The idea is to create regular sleep-promoting habits, such as keeping the bedroom quiet, dark and at a temperature that’s good for you.
Don’t have a large meal in the evening and avoid coffee and alcohol at least three hours before bedtime. Exercise regularly, but
not within three hours of bedtime.
A similar but more systematic approach is known as ‘stimulus control therapy’ (SCT). This involves ensuring that the bed is associated only with sleeping and sex. People are advised against having naps during the day, and to go to bed when feeling sleepy, but to get up again after 20 minutes if they haven’t fallen asleep.
They are then advised to do something relaxing until they feel drowsy again and to try again – but to get up again if it fails. This breaks the cycle of ‘trying’ to get to sleep.
You could also try specialist sleep-music recordings, which have a calming effect similar to that generated by yoga or meditation. Music can induce a shift in brain-wave patterns to alpha waves, which are associated with the deep relaxation you experience before you go to sleep, and this induces less anxiety.
Take minerals that calm
If you’re not getting sufficient calcium and, more particularly, magnesium, this can trigger or exacerbate sleep difficulties. The reason for this is that these two minerals work together to calm the body and help the nerves and muscles to relax, thus reducing cramps and twitches.
If you’re very stressed, or you consume too much sugar, your magnesium levels may well be low. Your diet is more likely to be low in magnesium than calcium – so make sure you’re eating plenty of magnesium-rich foods such as seeds, nuts, green vegetables, whole grains and seafood.
Milk products, green vegetables, nuts and seeds are particularly good sources of calcium. Some people also find it helpful to supplement up to 500mg of calcium and 300mg of magnesium at bedtime. Magnesium is the more important of the two for a relaxing effect.
Try help from herbs
Many herbs are said to have sleep-inducing properties. The best known of these is valerian, which is sometimes referred to as ‘nature’s Valium’. It seems to work in two ways: by promoting the body’s release of GABA, and by providing the amino acid glutamine, from which the brain can make GABA. Valerian is a good alternative to GABA, if you just can’t get to sleep and you live in a country that prohibits GABA.
Other herbs include chamomile, passion flower, lavender, hops, Californian poppy, lemon balm and bitter orange. These can also be used as essential oils in a relaxing bath before going to bed. For more detailed advice about herbal remedies, find a medical herbalist in your area.
- Sour or Montmorency cherries, or cherry-concentrate drinks
- Chicken or turkey
- Green vegetables
- Raw nuts and seeds
- Milk products
- Refined ‘white’ foods
- Caffeinated drinks
- 2 × high-potency multivitamin–minerals providing at least 50mg of niacin (B3), 20mg of vitamin B6, 200mcg of folic acid, plus 100mg of vitamin C and 10mg of zinc
- 1 × 5-HTP 100mg or 3–6mg melatonin or 2g of tryptophan an hour before bed
- 1 × GABA 1,000mg. If you can’t get GABA, find a combination formula providing L-theanine as well as taurine and glutamine, which are precursors of GABA
- 1 × magnesium 300mg, possibly with calcium
- 1 × valerian 150–300mg
If you are on SSRI antidepressants and also take large amounts of 5-HTP, this could theoretically make too much serotonin. I don’t recommend combining the two.
Valerian can promote daytime drowsiness, so it’s best to take it in the evening. It can interact with sedative drugs and should therefore be taken in combination only under medical supervision.
Don’t combine GABA with drugs that target GABA, such as most sleeping pills.
Too much melatonin can have undesirable effects, such as diarrhoea, constipation, nausea, dizziness, reduced libido, headaches, depression and nightmares.
By Patrick Holford, an extract from, Good Medicine – Safe, natural ways to solve over 75 common health problems